Alumna Spotlight: Katherine Brittain Bradley '82
By Jessica Seiter Niblo '57
Classic beauty, consummate hostess, adoring wife and mother…yes, yes, and yes…but wait. This is a tremendous powerhouse of a woman, organizer of forces for good in public education, founder of CityBridge Foundation in Washington D.C., supporter of issues in education and public health, collaborator with civic leaders in Washington to find solutions for the public school and charter school systems. But let’s start with a look back at her days at Marlborough.
Bradley explained to me, “I spent the early part of my life avoiding the field that is now my focus. In my sophomore year, Marlborough administered an aptitude test that suggested, among other things, that I should be a teacher. Teacher? At that time, it sounded truly terrible. I thought international law would be my chosen field, but I was happily distracted by my dance and other interests at Marlborough,” like gymnastics, French, and all around scholarship. But Bradley’s choice of Princeton University stemmed from a moment at Marlborough, at the end of 7th Grade, when “at an assembly, the School announced that senior and Class of ’77 valedictorian, Paula Kakimoto, would be going to Princeton. I thought, ‘if that’s her choice, then it’s mine too.’ Years later, I realized it was a pretty perfect fit. At Princeton I focused on policy in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Again, I avoided assignment to anything having to do with public education—it looked to be hopeless and dull in comparison to international affairs—but I eventually found a real calling in this field. The long, patient nature of it suits me. I think my comparative advantage is in staying at things for a long time, finding those problems that need years to reach solutions. That’s where public education is today; it’s eminently solvable, but only with persistence, relentless execution, and lots of staying power.”
During the summers at Princeton, Bradley (then Miss Brittain) did intern work at the precursor company of The Advisory Board and the Corporate Executive Board, the two best-practices research companies founded by her husband, David Bradley, now chairman of the Atlantic Media Company. She and David were married shortly after her Princeton graduation, and they also began a business and philanthropic partnership. Today, David tends to the media company and Katherine to CityBridge, the family foundation that has evolved from their best-practices businesses. “The Foundation originally followed the companies and was focused on health care—we had projects in Russia, South Africa, and a joint venture with Johns Hopkins—but after we sold the companies, we started over and refocused CityBridge on public education in Washington. The very thing that I was trying to avoid in my Princeton policy conferences—public education—became my total focus.” After a pause, Bradley added, “this field holds so much potential. The rewards are enormous, not just for children in Washington, but if we succeed here, we will influence communities all over the country.”
Poverty has many manifestations: drug addiction, teen pregnancy, joblessness, and broken families. Any one of those would have been a worthy destination for CityBridge’s focus, but after several years of exploration, Bradley and her team settled on public education. “It was both the most compelling field, in terms of potential anti-poverty impact, and it had the most accountability—multiple levers to actually get the job done. Public education is financed by public dollars, so what works in this field can be relatively quickly scaled. And there is huge accountability since schools must report their results and teachers and principals are public employees. In no other intervention can you compel participation, but going to school is not optional. No other area of anti-poverty work had these tools, or this much promise.”
Bradley is also passionate about preserving American social mobility, and she sees education as the best possible route to solving the class divisions now percolating through the national dialogue. “In America today, successful college drop-outs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are anomalies. The rest of us will need a college degree if we are going to prosper economically, avoid unemployment, and advance in our chosen profession. But that ticket ahead—the college degree—isn’t spread evenly throughout the population. If you are born in the bottom income quartile in the U.S., your chance of graduating from college is only eight percent. Think about that…eight percent. Those are miserable odds. Why even try? Compare that to the odds you have if you are born into the top income quartile. Your chances then of graduating from college are more than 80 percent. That kind of educational skew—an eight percent shot at the bottom and an 80 percent shot at the top—will exacerbate class divisions and create a permanent underclass if we simply stay the current course.”
Bradley is therefore focused on how to provide what she calls a “transformational” education for kids born into that bottom income quartile. “If we can change their trajectory, we change the country. We re-instill the “American Dream” by making it possible for kids from any background to succeed at the highest levels.”
Bradley and CityBridge worked closely with Michelle Rhee, the change-agent Chancellor who was in D.C. from 2007- 2010. She also has a strong relationship with the new mayor, Vince Gray. He appointed her as the Co-Chair of his Education Transition Team, a role she played for the first half of 2011. Bradley says, “It was a privilege to serve.” Her enthusiasm lights up the phone lines.“This education reform movement is making such a difference, nationwide. Chicago is taking off, huge efforts are underway in New Orleans, and Colorado is becoming a model state. We’re in a golden moment in this field when results finally seem possible.” Bradley credits Marlborough with creating an environment that demanded her best. “I had nothing but the highest, toughest expectations for myself. The beauty of an all-girls school was that we never even considered any limits to what we could achieve.” She also relates that insight to her current work. “Expectations are everything. We learned that at Marlborough and we know that from schools serving lower-income kids. For achievement to be high, expectations have to be high, too.” Bradley also credits Marlborough with her ease in public speaking and in working with groups. Her passion at Marlborough was dance, practiced under the watchful eye, friendship, and mentorship of dance instructor Michele Manzella. Of this extracurricular choice, Bradley laughs and says, “I guess if you can appear repeatedly wearing your leotard in front of an audience, you will be immune from stage fright thereafter.”
Family is also very important to Bradley. She has three sons, one a senior at Yale, one a freshman at Princeton (where she is in her final year as a Board Member), and one a sophomore at St. Albans in D.C. Her partnership with her husband is legendary. When her sister Carol ’79 died of brain cancer in 1994, it brought her family and life into sharp perspective. “I understood that anything can happen—and quickly. I wanted to make sure that whatever amount of time I had, I lived it in a hurry, doing interesting, meaningful work, and engaging fully in it.” This 2007 Marlborough Woman of the Year is a woman of purpose, a woman to emulate and celebrate.